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August 25th, 2012

Into the Woods

The second production at Shakespeare in the Park this summer <sup>1</sup> is Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, directed by Timothy Sheader.  I was in two minds about going to see it.  First, I hate getting up before dawn to go sit on the ground for hours in the heat (inevitably) and the sun (sometimes) or the rain (occasionally) and maybe not get tickets after all.  Second, I Have Issues with Into the Woods, which seemed to me, the first two times I saw it, to be about how useless magic and fairytales are in the face of hard, cold reality.<sup>2</sup>  Butcsecooney was coming into New York to see it andtinytempest was proposing a group-waiting party kind of event, and I'd read the kind of peevish negative review of the production in The New York Times that made me suspect that something really interesting was going on.  So I hauled myself out of bed at 4:45, Claire and I met Tempest at the 81st Street entrance at 6, and we made camp under a spreading maple tree for the next 7 hours reading, chatting with people on neighboring blankets, writing <sup>3</sup>, and workshopping Claire's novella when Ellen showed up with food at 11:30.<sup>4</sup>  At 1:30 pm or so, I came home, triumphant, and collapsed until it was time to deal with dinner and dressing to go see the actual show.

At this point, my general attitude could be described as "Totally worth it, even if the show stinks.  Which it won't.  Probably.  I always liked the first act, anyway.  The music's great.  And the production sounds like it'll be lively, even if it doesn't work.  I hope I don't fall asleep.  Now, where did I put my shoes?"

Of course, I didn't fall asleep.  I couldn't.  And not because it was loud and busy and irritating and cartoonish (which is basically what Ben Brantley of the Times said).  It was because, for the first time ever, the play totally worked for me.  I saw the magic.  I saw what Sondheim and Lapine were trying to say about story and wishes and risks and the importance of knowing what you want and the unaccountable nature of consequences and what growing up and being a parent means.  It's definitely a Forest Perilous of ideas and themes, some of them more clearly stated than others, but somehow, this production managed to point up the various narrative and thematic paths so that I could actually follow their emotional logic to the unified conclusion Sondheim and Lapine wanted me to reach:  that stories and art are primally important to humanity.

In other words, I laughed a lot, ruefully sometimes, cried more than once, and stood around the entrance to the Park with the six of us who ended up going together for about 40 minutes afterwards, talking about exactly how awesome it had been and why.

Possibly the biggest change from previous productions was Sheader's decision to cast the Narrator as a boy--11? 13?  somewhere in there--who has run away from home after a (taped) argument with his father.  He shows up in a wonderful jungle-gym of a set with a sleeping bag, a flashlight, and a backpack full of dolls and stuffed animals, which he uses to tell himself a hodge-podge of fairy tales he's obviously heard and read and understood in his own  wa.  Since these are his fairy tale characters, he visualizes them in ways that make sense to him, ways that owe a great deal to popular culture.  Little Red Riding Hood is a juvenile Roller Derby chick in a red hoodie.  Cinderella, post make-over, is Disney Princessoid.  The Wolf and the Princes Charming are Steamy Romance Covers.  The Wicked Stepmother is a dead ringer for Patsy on Absolutely Fabulous and her daughters are slightly down-market Sloane Rangers.  The Mysterious Man is a street perso, complete with can of cheap beer.  Not all the references work equally well.  The Baker and his Wife, for instance, look like escapees from a realist English film from the 1940's, which probably makes more sense if you're English.  But the point itself seemed clear enough to me.  We're still making archetypes.  Some of them are further from their sources than others, but there they are, powerful and useful as they were in 1300 and before:  the disobedient child; the overprotective or destructive parent; the desperate couple; the lonely maiden; the predatory stranger; the danger--and glory--that can be found by stepping off the beaten path.

And that's just the costumes.  The direction contributed, too.  For the first time, I felt that Act II was a direct outgrowth of Act I, not just textually, but aesthetically and emotionally.  The characters had grown and changed without realizing (or even always wanting) it, changing not only their circumstances but their view of the world.  That I felt for them all--including the Wicked Stepfamily--is a tribute to the actors, most of whom turned in strong, unexpected, interesting performances.  Donna Murphy as the Witch just burned up the stage, dominating every scene she was in with the power and flexibility of her voice, the perfect control she had over her body.  Jesse Mueller (who was by far and away the best thing about On A Clear Day, You Can See Forever) as Cinderella was prime, too.  Utterly focused, utterly real, and man, what a voice.  Pure crystal, but with feeling, which isn't easy.  Sarah Stiles's comic timing was perfect as Little Red Ridinghood, and she was a cute as a button.  I loved Denis O'Hare, who played the Baker as a bit of a schlemeil, with a mush-mouth delivery that shouldn't have worked, but somehow did.  Amy Adams' Baker's Wife was perfectly solid, if somewhat bland.  Maybe her performance would have worked better on-screen than on the Delacourt's unforgiving stage--this was her first theatrical role, after all, and good screen acting is a lot more pulled in and subtle than stage acting.

Some of the best performances of the night were turned in by Milky White the cow, the beanstalk, the giant's hen, and the Giant's Wife, who were all played by puppets.  It would take maryrobinette to do full justice to a description of them, so suffice it to say that you'd be astonished what can be done with umbrellas, sticks and straw, pots and pans, a painted trash can, and whatever the cow heads were molded out of.  I felt my eyes prickle when Milky White keeled over, and the hair actually rose on the back of my neck when the Giant's Wife materialized out of a clump of trees.  My hat's off to the consensually invisible puppetteers who brought them to life, and to the orchestra who sat behind a scrim of leaves and ladders, 20 feet off the ground, in the heat, keeping everybody on pitch and in time as they negotiated their way through the score.  Outside.  With huge racoons scurrying across the back of the set during Act II, indicating that they must have been somewhere back stage during Act I.  Which must have been somewhat disconcerting for all involved.

Anyway. I've had a transformative experience.  I'm back from the woods, and I get it now.  Into the Woods is a remarkable play as well as a remarkable musical. See?  Growing wiser doesn't always have to be a painful experience. 

It runs through September 1.  The tickets are free.  Get up early and get in line.  It's worth the wait.

---------------------------------
1. I missed As You Like It owing to Too Much Travel in July.  I am sad, but resigned.  You cannot lead all possible lives at the same time.  Although we do try.

2.  Yes, I know you don't agree with me.  There's a narrative going on here.  Please don't stop reading.

3.  I revised most of Chapter 4, and might have finished it, but my battery gave out.

4.  It is wonderful.  We had a great time analyzing and anatomizing it.  I hope it helped.

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